The Odyssey of Captain Beefheart: Rolling Stone's 1970 Cover Story

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In the early Sixties Don Van Vliet moved to Cucamonga to be with Frank Zappa who was composing music and producing motion pictures. It was at about this time that Van Vliet and Zappa hatched up the name Captain Beefheart, "But don't ask me why or how," Beefheart comments today. The two made plans to form a rock and roll band called the Soots and to make a movie to be named Captain Beefheart Meets The Grunt People, but nothing ever came of either project. In time Zappa left for Los Angeles and formed the Mothers. Beefheart returned to Lancaster and gathered together a group of "desert musicians." In 1964 the Magic Band was ready to begin playing teen age dances in its home town.

The one stage appearance of the first Beefheart ensemble was bizarre to the point of frightening. All members of the Magic Band were dressed in black leather coats and pants with black high heel boots. The lead guitar player had a patch over one eye and long dangling arms that reached from his shoulders to half way below his knees. At a time when long hair was still a rarity, the Captain sported long dark locks down to his waist. It was simply outrageous.

The band was an immediate sensation in Lancaster and very soon its fame began to spread throughout Southern California. Beefheart's brand of abrasive blues-rock was truly a novelty to young listeners in 1964. Record companies interested in the new sound began to take notice. In mid 1964 Beefheart entered into the first of a long series of disastrous agreements with record producers.

His first release on A&M was a new version of "Diddy Wah Diddy" made popular by Bo Diddley. It featured his own style of frantic harp playing and an incredibly "low down" voice hitting notes at least a half octave lower than the lowest notes ever sung by any other rock performer. The record was a hit in Los Angeles and for a while it appeared that Beefheart was going to be a brilliant success in the music business.

But it was not to be. Beefheart recorded an album of new music and took it to Jerry Moss of A&M (Alpert and Moss). Moss listened to the songs — "Electricity," "Zig Zag Wanderer," "Autumn's Child," etc. — and declared that they were all "too negative." He refused to release the album. Beefheart was crushed by this insensitivity and abruptly quit playing. A&M released the remaining single it had in the can. The words to "Frying Pan" now seemed strangely prophetic: "Go down town/ You walk around/A man comes up, says he's gonna put you down/You try to succeed to fulfill your need/Then a car hits you and people watch you bleed/Out of the frying pan into the fire/Anything you say they's gonna call you a liar."

The record went nowhere and neither did Beefheart. For almost one year he lived in retirement back in Lancaster.

The second break in Beefheart's career arrived in 1965 when producer Bob Krasnow of Kama Sutra agreed to release the same material that A&M had rejected. Beefheart reassembled the Magic Band and returned to the studio to record the twelve cuts of Safe As Milk (Buddah BDS 5001), an album which is one of the forgotten classics of rock and roll history. Even though the album had been delayed for a year, it was still far ahead of its time. It featured the unmistakable Beefheart style of blues and bottleneck guitar, the first use in popular music of an electronic instrument called the therimen, and the first effective synthesis in America of rock and roll and Delta blues.

For the first time also, Beefheart was able to demonstrate the power and range of his voice. On one song, for example, Beefheart's vocal literally destroyed a $1200 Telefunken microphone. Hank Cicalo, engineer for the sessions, reports that on the song "Electricity" Beefheart's voice simply wouldn't track at certain points. Although a number of microphones were employed, none of them could stand the Captain's wailing "EEEE-Lec-Triccc-ittt-EEEEEEEE" on the last chorus. This, incidentally, can be heard on the record.

With an excellent album under his belt Beefheart felt confident enough to go on the road. In early 1966 he went on a tour of England and Europe where Safe As Milk had attracted considerable attention. When he returned to the States he played gigs at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in Los Angeles and the Family Dog in San Francisco. Well received in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene, it seemed once again that Beefheart was on the verge of success. The Magic Band was scheduled to play a gig at the Fillmore and to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival, both of which could have been springboards to the top.

Then disaster struck. Beefheart's lead guitar player suddenly quit the band leaving a gap which could not be filled. The unusual nature of Beefheart's songs make it necessary for him to spend months teaching each new musician his music. The departure of the lead guitar destroyed Beefheart's chances in the San Francisco scene. The Monterey Pop Festival went on without him. Those who attended it never knew what they had missed.

From this point in the story, events become even more chaotic and difficult to unravel. Beefheart returned to Los Angeles and tried to put together a new band and a new set of songs. His producer, Bob Krasnow, was to arrange the second Beefheart album on Buddah. According to sources in the Los Angeles record industry, Krasnow deliberately allowed the option on Beefheart's contract with Buddah to expire. When this happened he signed Beefheart to a personal contract and then sold the rights to Beefheart's next album to both Buddah Records and MGM. Tapes of the album were then made at two different studios, apparently at the expense of both companies. When the sessions were finished in the summer of 1968 Beefheart left for a second tour of Europe.

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